If punk rock’s heart belonged to any one person, it beat in the chest of Joe Strummer. At a time when the movement was largely defined as a glue-sniffing “blank generation” with no future, the Clash’s frontman shaped it into something more purposeful, empathetic, ambitious, and even idealistic. In their brief time together, The Clash made six albums, five of them groundbreaking classics, incorporating ska, reggae, and hip-hop into their omnivorous sound.
After the Clash split, Mick Jones continued making hits with Big Audio Dynamite, and Paul Simonon rubbed elbows with stars, backing Bob Dylan and joining Damon Albarn’s supergroup the Good, the Bad & the Queen. But Joe Strummer seemed to restlessly bounce around from one project to another: continuing to seek out international sounds, spending more time scoring (and sometimes acting in) films than recording albums. After forming the Mescaleros in 1999, he was making some of the best music of his post-Clash career.
Strummer died of a heart attack in 2002, but he would’ve turned 70 on August 21st this year. To mark the occasion, let’s look back at his 10 best non-Clash songs.
10. “Silent Telephone” with the 101ers (1975)
Before he became Joe Strummer of the Clash, he was “Woody” Mellor of the 101ers, fronting a rockabilly-flavored pub rock band nicknamed after his folk music hero Woody Guthrie. The 101ers’ lyrics were a little more pedestrian and relationship-driven than the songs that would make him famous – “Silent Telephone” is about waiting by the phone after being stood up by a girl named Suzy – but his distinctive voice and writing style were already pretty well formed. And the band became a key piece of the Clash’s origin story: The 101ers played one show with the Sex Pistols in 1976, and Strummer almost immediately decided to leave his band, finding some younger musicians to start a punk band with. But he wasn’t a complete stranger to punk in those days – the 101ers compilation Elgin Avenue Breakdown (Revisited) closes with a fiery live cover of Them’s “Gloria” in which Strummer references Patti Smith.
9. “Love Kills” (1986)
Strummer officially disbanded the Clash in early 1986, mere weeks after the resounding critical and commercial failure of Cut the Crap, the band’s only album without Mick Jones. And Strummer busied himself for the next couple years composing for (and occasionally acting in) films, several of them directed by Alex Cox of Repo Man fame. Their first collaboration was Sid and Nancy, the 1986 biopic about Strummer’s London punk contemporary Sid Vicious. And Strummer’s songs for the soundtrack, particularly “Love Kills,” over a sharper, more streamlined version of Cut the Crap’s much-maligned drum machine-driven sound. Jones actually played uncredited guitar on “Love Kills,” an indication that perhaps the Clash’s breakup wasn’t as rancorous as it seemed from the outside.
8. “Mondo Bongo” with the Mescaleros (2001)
Strummer’s music is a lot of things, but it’s rarely described as “sexy.” But three years after Strummer passed away, a simmering six-minute ballad from Global a Go-Go soundtracked a steamy scene featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols: In 2005’s Mrs. & Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie dance and kiss to “Mondo Bongo” in Bogata, Colombia. As a result of its prominent placement in the box office hit, today “Mondo Bongo” is by far the most popular streaming track of Strummer’s post-Clash catalog.
7. “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash (2003)
Strummer idolized Johnny Cash, but in a bittersweet twist of fate, both legends died within a year of collaborating for the first time. Producer Rick Rubin invited Strummer to the 2002 sessions for Cash’s final album, released as Unearthed in 2003. And Strummer started showing up to the studio every day just to watch his hero work, eventually working with Cash on a duet of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” A solo Strummer recording of “Redemption Song” from around the same time was also issued as a single from his posthumous Mescaleros album, 2003’s Streetcore.
6. “Afro-Cuban Be-Bop” with the Astro-Physicians (1990)
Strummer had a lengthy association with the Irish folk-punk band the Pogues. They co-starred in Alex Cox’s 1987 film Straight To Hell, and Strummer produced the band’s fifth album, 1990’s Hell’s Ditch. In fact, when singer Shane MacGowan abruptly left the band soon after the album, Strummer briefly became a Pogue, fronting the band for a 1991 tour and singing both Pogues and Clash songs. But when Strummer and the Pogues collaborated on an original song for 1990 film I Hired A Contract Killer, they recorded under an alias, the Astro-Physicians. The movie didn’t have a soundtrack album, but “Afro-Cuban Be-Bop” was included on the career-spanning 2018 compilation Joe Strummer 001.
5. “Gangsterville” with the Latino Rockabilly War (1989)
In the years after the Clash disbanded, Strummer worked on many films but was slow to make a record of his own. A couple weeks after Mick Jones released his fourth album with Big Audio Dynamite, Strummer released his first and only true solo album. Recorded in L.A. with a band of locals dubbed the Latino Rockabilly War, Earthquake Weather is a stripped-down, self-produced affair. But lead guitarist Zander Schloss (Circle Jerks) and drummer Jack Irons (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) enliven some of his best post-Clash songs, including opener “Gangsterville.” Unfortunately, Strummer was almost immediately dropped from Sony Records after the album’s commercial failure, and he wouldn’t try making another album of his own for a decade.
4. “The Road to Rock ’n’ Roll” with the Mescaleros (1999)
After some “wilderness years” that lasted most of the ‘90s, Strummer made a triumphant comeback at the end of the decade. He formed a new band, the Mescaleros, releasing Rock Art and the X-Ray Style on Hellcat Records, a label founded by Clash disciple Tim Armstrong of Rancid. And for the first time in a decade, Strummer toured widely and regularly, playing his new songs alongside Clash classics. And last month, Strummer’s original solo demo for “The Road to Rock ’n’ Roll” from Rock Art was released to streaming services as the first single from Joe Strummer 002, out via Dark Horse Records on Sept. 16.
3. “Generations” with Electric Dog House (1997)
The 1997 compilation Generations I – A Punk Look At Human Rights kicked off with a song by Electric Dog House, a one-off supergroup featuring alumni of three influential ‘70s British punk bands. “Generations” features Strummer on vocals and guitar, Christopher “Rat Scabies” Millar of The Damned on drums, and John “Segs” Jennings of the Ruts on bass. But a spacey, reverb-heavy atmosphere and the unusual bounce of Millar’s drums make the song a unique and intriguing experiment, not an exercise in punk nostalgia.
2. “Keys To Your Heart” with the 101ers (1976)
The 101ers recorded “Keys To Your Heart” as the lead track for the band’s debut single. Unfortunately, by the time Chiswick Records issued the 45, the band had split up. But after Strummer found greater fame in his next band, the single was reissued by Big Beat Records in 1979. And The Clash briefly added “Keys To Your Heart” to their setlist for a few of its gigs in support of London Calling.
1. “Johnny Appleseed” with the Mescaleros (2001)
A month before Strummer died, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that The Clash would be inducted the following year, and Mick Jones joined the Mescaleros onstage to perform three Clash songs. But while the most immediate heartbreak of Strummer’s death was that we’d never see a full-scale Clash reunion, the real tragedy is that he was also just gaining steam with the Mescaleros and writing some of his best songs in years. “Johnny Appleseed” — the moving environmentalist anthem from the last album Stummer released in his lifetime, Global a Go-Go — was also used as the theme song to David Milch’s HBO series John from Cincinnati in 2007.